The Radiant Minute, The Gisted Particular:
The Combinatory Aesthetics of William Carlos Williams
by Sean Hooks
With Paterson’s “radiant gist,” William Carlos Williams continues a tradition that dates back at least to William Blake’s notion of “minute particulars,” and though tradition is a word Williams is often painted as taking a fervent stance against, in his very anti-poesis he carries on the most progressive throughline in the arts—the revolution against an established status quo. In a chapter which focuses on Williams, Hugh Kenner writes in The Pound Era of Leo Frobenius’s concept of the paideuma, a type of gestalt, a more encompassing way of creating meaning. He traces this through politics and presences, through art and art history, noting the way things come together (in a more Abbey Road-ish sense than not) in the world. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, is connected to Frobenius by way of the rupestral Altamira cave drawings which contributed to the inspiration for the African masks which appear in that painting. Larger connections foam out into an anthropological and ethnographic glossing of African-European history. Influence is transubstantiated across the artistic spectrum, collapsing many of the distinctions of genre and category which limit and confine our interpretations of art.
Connect this to Williams via Blake and his minute particulars to other influences that would quickly turn into a large diagram of connections, an architectonic map of the poetics and predecessors of William Carlos Williams, for to digress is not a crime, it is not an ungrounded and thesis-less approach; no, to digress is to study, and to attain universality one must delve into specificity, into locality. It is central that Williams’s largest literary canvas is named after a place, one both real and imagined, as Kenner explains how Paterson is both an actual site and “an imaginary town.” Similarly, in the more pragmatic and “lived” territories, Williams served as both doctor and poet. His pediatrician mind and bedside manner concocted an excellent prescription for poetry as modern art (the equivalent of the 1913 Armory Show which Williams claims to have attended but may have conflated in his mind with the one four years later, if one were to be generous). He diagnosed the symptoms of his day and offered his cure: “no ideas but in things.” Much like Hemingway and Carver’s minimalist endeavors in the realm of fiction, Williams was in dialogue with “the establishment,” engaging it, being influenced by it, but also railing against it and striking out, striving towards something original and distinct. His work was very much just that – work. A short poem can be the result of the muse, of inspiration, that brief and gimlet-eyed moment or image, but like Carver’s struggle to find just the right words, like Hemingway’s insistence on paring down, like the art generated by Donald Judd or Dan Flavin or the De Stijl movement, all that craft and removal and “lack” is actually the result of tremendous brooding and consideration, a recurrent trope in Modernism. Think of James Joyce and the anecdote about how he sits there in his escritoire, toiling all day, and as evening arrives his friend comes in to check on him. Joyce looks up, a wreck. His friend asks him how it’s going. Joyce tells him that he’s been working all day and has only written seven words. The friend says, jocularly, “Come on, James, that’s not bad for you.” At which point Joyce replies, “But I don’t know what order they go in!” Or, to move from the anecdotal to the brute contemporary reality of craft, consider these words by poet Campbell McGrath: “Mostly, poetry is hard work. It is a salt mine, a logging camp, an assembly line, a phone bank. Inspiration is wonderful but the long, complex, obsessively detailed labor of revising what inspiration offers towards its necessary perfection—line after line, draft after draft, day after month after year—is a lonely, daunting, Sisyphean task.” Williams wasn’t only rolling the boulder uphill, the boulder was made not of rock but of clay. He was inventing it as he went. He was heeding Pound’s advice and making it new.
A writer’s struggles against established traditions in his or her desire for newness may take many routes, from expatriatism to journeys of interiority. The classic debate between friends and schoolmates William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound is often synopsized by examining Pound’s officious dictum that he was more interested in the “finished product” of artfulness whereas Williams was roiling in “the loam,” the surface-level soil. But in engaging with the historico-political insertions of Paterson, Williams does not fulfill this Poundian binary, even if Pound’s critique is in some ways very much “true.” In Pastoral, Pragmatism and Twentieth-Century Poetry, Ann Marie Mikkelsen grants the truth of Pound’s statement but also subverts it, condensing Williams’s quest as follows: “In desiring the ‘bloody loam’ where his friend Pound would have the ‘finished product,’ Williams exposes his willingness to engage with the ‘filth’ of the nation, both physically and intellectually.” This harkens the ear to the semi-parodic statement by Dylan Thomas: “I write of worms and corruption, because I like worms and corruption.” Writers need to get their proverbial hands dirty, to be laborers. Consider Kerouac, a fictive poet if ever there was one, dragging a ladder onstage and reading from it to make the point that writers are members of the working class.
The literary canon was not amassed purely with gold-embroidered stationary and Ivy League diplomas and fountain pens, it was forged with figurative hammers and nails, with Kerouac’s Benzedrine-fueled “automatic writing” typewriter and his On the Road scroll, with Burroughs’s cut-ups, to reference another of the Beats, contemporaries of Williams though their scene was across the river in New York City while Williams was more of a nine-to-fiver, a Bergen County homebody. That said, Williams’s play “Many Loves” was put on by The Living Theatre, Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s experimental repertory which opened in 1951 in an abandoned department store (with Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights” as their first production). The muck and the mire need to be explored as much as do the gilded rooms and high concepts of capital “L” Literature. The soot-covered streets of Paterson are ground zero, as are the ribbed edges of New Jersey which contain the pure products of America, the tens of thousands of Elsies who are oft overlooked as historians and academics laud the products of Harvard and Penn. Thomas R. Whitaker, author of a number of books and articles of literary criticism on Williams has written (in an excerpt from Modern American Poetry, Ed.: Harold Bloom) that “‘To Elsie’ focuses three of Williams’ main concerns: a despoiled America, the alienated and self-alienating human condition, and the ravished Eden of the imagination.” Laudably interpreted, but it is precisely this type of rigid categorization and highfalutin academic language that Williams took exception with and aspired to defy. He neither revels in filth nor condemns it, but simply presents it. The America that Williams inscribes is not sophistically reducible to a place where things are despoiled and people are alienated. It is in his non-judgmental evocations of the harshnesses of life that Williams triumphs over the stuffy conventionality which preceded him and which would be beaten out of poetry by the likes of himself and Thomas and cummings and Ginsberg and Bukowski. There is a non-stodgy quality to Williams, apparent in his fiction as well, a dedication to depiction, to vivified portrayal.
Kenner’s book glories in these contradictions and does so in a thoroughly incisive way vis-a-vis a creative-critical approach, one which explores both connections and juxtapositions. His ethos has been picked up by Bill Brown, whose Thing Theory, an extrapolation of Heidegger’s ideas regarding the differences between objects and things, is more and more being used as a way to study Modernist poetry. Through such ideation we can both look forward to a more comprehensive understanding of our literature, and we can also look back, to trace it at least as far as William Blake, whose combinatory energy and expressiveness stands dutifully opposed to the pomp and pretention which Williams continually circumvents and subverts in Paterson and elsewhere.
Williams’s “things” are many and varied, not just in the lines of his verse but in the orchestration of his literary career and its multifarious interactions with form. Paterson is the long poem, the massive and career-defining undertaking. “To Elsie” is part of the larger Spring And All, a text interspersing poetry and prose. Williams was poet, playwright, essayist, short story writer, novelist. He was physician and head of pediatrics. He was also an artist. Like with many Modernist poets, the visual arts are intricately tied to his story. Williams’s painting began when a friend of his from medical school offered him the opportunity to take up the brush, which Williams recalls thusly: “My delight was in going down to the old boy’s second floor, north-light studio and sitting there all Sunday afternoon while he’d work putting in his trees and cows with a low-toned sky in the background, over and over the same thing. At first I used to sit and hear him talk until one day he said, ‘How about trying it yourself? Here, I’ll set you up a canvas,’ which he did. ‘Here are some clean brushes, here are the colors’—at which he jammed a handful of other brushes, hairs in the air, into a small jar and placed it before me—‘There, paint that!’” That final exclamatory seems to be the advice that Williams corralled, distributing it with intensity and focus towards all of his most enduring artistic and writerly endeavors. What, after all, is more “paint that!” than:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams viewed art as a battle. Whether trying to concretize an idea on canvas or struggling to subvert the previously held maxims and requirements of traditional poetry, for Williams a poem could aspire to the qualities of a symphony or a cubist sketch, an Aristotelian view straight out of the Poetics but also thoroughly progressive and of the period. It was a case of “both” trumping “either/or.” His use of colloquial speech to capture the rhythm of an “average day,” the comings and goings of Rutherford, New Jersey, and simply “seeing the world,” this speaks to the notion of art-as-unveiling. Paintings should not imitate or copy nature, they should embody it (a concept which threads back to the most bravura moments in Whitman). Williams spoke of his doctorly eye and how it informed both his painting and his poetry. “The physician enjoys a wonderful opportunity actually to witness the words being born. Their actual colors and shapes are laid before him carrying their tiny burdens which he is privileged to take into his care with their unspoiled newness.” A writer is also one who takes care and who witnesses births, who values his or her own labor as such, as labor, and who develops an aesthetic based on the purest materials (in Williams’s case: shapes and colors, lines of uncapitalized verse, a bedside manner and freshly washed hands) and who unrelentingly attempts to incarnate the world on the page. Or maybe even more so than to incarnate, Williams’s goal was to preserve, to archive via imagination and improvisation, to preserve what in “Spring and All” he calls “The universality of things.”
In Lucky Girls, contemporary author Nell Freudenberger elucidates it as follows. “Beauty was something that was new to you. That was why tourists and children could see it better than other people, and it was the poet’s job to keep seeing it the way the children and the tourists did.” Williams had that newness of vision, never letting his sight get tired and old. Being surrounded by children probably helped. Though the world presents us with so much death, so much finitude, it also is a source of replenishment, of constant birth. Who better to give birth to newness in poetry than a healer of children? But to contrast with Freudenberger’s vision of the poet’s task as preserving a sort of inner child, Williams also adhered to the more sanguine and volatile aspects of the writer’s vocation as well. For that flip-side look to Salman Rushdie, who writes in The Satanic Verses that a poet’s work is “to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him.” This ability to confront some of the darker side of humanity, and to ford the rivers of blood into which the true artist must wade, is perhaps best exhibited in Williams’s masterful short story “The Use of Force.”
Though it is technically not a poem, the mission remains the same, and right from the title the reader is tipped off that these will be murkier, muddier, bloodier waters. Something of rape in this title, of violence and warfare as well. Will this next “thing itself,” the reader must inquire, be a thing of suffering, of misery? It will surely be a multi-faceted thing, of depth and an ability to withstand scrutiny. A short story needs to deal with different components, with plot, character, theme, sustained point of view and other literary wrinkles, and some would still insist that “The Use of Force” falls somewhere between a poem and a story, that it is perhaps just a very well-rendered sketch. But etchings and drawings are often the equal of painting and sculpture (Goya comes to mind), and, as Williams himself wrote in Kora in Hell: “There is no thing that with a twist of the imagination cannot be something else.”
“The Use of Force” is a first-person story told from the point of view of a pediatrician, so another line being blurred or scrambled is the one between fiction and non-fiction. The ordinary life most prominently on display is that of a new young patient, a girl from a family named Olson. Her mother is “a big startled looking woman” and the first penetration, the first exposure, is of the Olson home. The woman has to open the door to the doctor and let him in. The narrator is on a house call. The mother is concerned for her sick child, apologetic regarding their lower class domicile, inviting the doctor (who they will pay in cash) inside, where the girl sits on her father’s lap. Williams takes time early on to have his narrator note that “the child was fully dressed” and that she is “an unusually attractive little thing.” But despite her “magnificent blonde hair, in profusion” and her photogenic aspect, she is feverish, in pain, a victim.
There is plenty of room for psychoanalytic and feminist concern as well. The male gaze is clearly being deployed. He is the authority figure, the narrator, the doctor, and this tale can certainly be read as allegorical. Williams is stylistically withholding and minimal, as usual, refusing to set aside dialogue with quotation marks or other identifiers. As the doctor essays the girl, the parents conspire with him, three against one, adults aligned against the smaller and more vulnerable lifeform. “Such a nice man,” says the mother, “Look how kind he is to you. Come on, do what he tells you to. He won’t hurt you.” There’s an almost fairy tale quality to the story but the doctor doesn’t want such vouching from the lady of the house, the queen of this particular castle, and he grinds his teeth in disgust. He needs the family to assist him in tricking the girl, to not use words like “hurt.”
In Paterson, Williams writes of how there is so much “common language to unravel,” and here the seemingly gentle and somewhat simple word “hurt” regains its rightful place. Violence, assault, abuse, rape—these are deleterious things first and foremost not because they are immoral or upsetting psychologically, but because they hurt. Linguistic deception is far from innocuous. It may be necessary, more “inoculation” than “innocuous.” We inject our children with needles even though they cry. We are confident, sure of our expertise and our knowhow, but to what extent is it acceptable to wield power? This is the crucial question at the center of Williams’s story in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Hugh Kenner in “The Jersey Paideuma” section of The Pound Era claims that Paterson is “Pound’s thirty year war applied to a local case.” He writes of war as a metaphor, with Williams subjugating poetry to his demands. The landscapes in his paintings are bucolic but they are also, says Kenner, “a comatose giant.” Comatose is a medical word, the state the child from “The Use of Force” may lapse into without intervention. But it’s not a far leap from intervention to oppression, to imperialism. And the imperial begins at home. Williams’s homes are in America, and to write of American history one must deal quite literally with the use of force of the title, a phrase that is plain language, letting the reader know what is coming. The story itself is a trying and inexorable read; despite its brevity, it is never aphoristic or whimsical or “light.” This is serious business.
“Then the battle begun” writes Williams as his narrator has his glasses knocked to the floor by the unwilling patient. She is scolded by her parents. She has behaved indecorously, refused to submit, grievous sins for a female of the species in this piece published in 1938 and portraying that time period, though even still today these are infractions young women and girls are often accused of, perhaps in contemporary Patersons overseas, in that hotbed of female oppression the Middle East, and still here in America, if rarely to the extent of stonings and honor killings. Often the suppression of the female is religiously-motivated, but in Williams’s story the excuse is diphtheria. It may kill her without intervention, but the interventions and intercessions of the medical-industrial complex kill plenty of people every year, both in America and abroad. Cures have ceded way to treatments and the ministrations of corporate pharmaceutical giants, and side effects sometimes turn out to be fatal. Those who intervene to help often wind up doing harm. Technicians err, nurses overlook, orderlies misdiagnose, pharmacists allot the wrong dosage, doctors prescribe an inadequate medication, surgeons fail. The narrator in “The Use of Force” grows angry at his patient, stating “We’re going to look at your throat. You’re old enough to understand what I’m saying. Will you open it now by yourself or shall we have to open it for you?” The patrician doctor, a second patriarch in the house, is initially met with a resistance as silent as a Buddhist monk’s. The subtext explodes off the page. The doctor at one point grows irritated with the girl’s father, and in a most Freudian moment even says, “I wanted to kill him.” Of the man’s daughter he claims, “I had to smile myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat.” The mother grows apprehensive. The child’s silence does not last. She begins to actively resist, her statement “Don’t you’re hurting me” quickly escalating to a shriek of “Stop it! Stop it! You’re killing me!” The visual manifestation is so thoroughly and convincingly rendered. The reader is placed inside that small and spartan New Jersey home in the 1930s. The story’s poetry is poetry of the image, of the scene, the portrait, the landscape of humanity, the sculpting of characters, the metric arcing of plot.
Achieving disturbing violence on the page is said to be harder than ever now. People have become coruscated, inured, desensitized, harder to shock. But the rapine ingress described at the close of Williams’s “The Use of Force” is vivid not because of the jolt. It is not about quickening the reader’s pulse. It is about exposing, laying something bare and unadorned. The child is held down, her orifice violated, the mouth as the genesis of speech, the ability to communicate quelled, the doctor admitting he is “furious” at the child’s resistance. He knows better. We know better. Though the girl’s resistance is futile, because she is a child she is not yet fully inculcated with and suppressed by shame (“Aren’t you ashamed, the mother yelled at her. Aren’t you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?”). America is still a largely Puritan and fearful country, laden with shame for centuries. And its opposite, a history-averse shamelessness which deifies instant gratification and worships the eternal present, is no better. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent cinematic retitling of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, endeavors to encapsulate American regeneration through violence – the violence of its defining institutions, the religions called capitalism and Christianity. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s depiction of the frontier as a blood-drenched landscape of purgation and perdition comes to mind as well, while in the poetic canon Yeats’s most apocalyptic vision lets loose a “blood-dimmed tide,” and the poet perhaps most indicative of the young girl’s ordeal in Williams’s story is Emily Dickinson, for whom:
I never hear the word “Escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!
I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again!
The Olson girl is trying to escape, she bleeds and screams and shrieks, her tongue cut, the doctor unrelenting. He has seen the worst sort of bloodiness, that of a child’s corpse, and he has seen it multiple times before. Blood is death but it is also life. It courses through Williams’s story, across poetry and prose, carrying the real and the crafted. “The worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason,” says Williams’s doctor. He is in a fury. He knows he can tear the child apart if he wants to. And he wants to. “It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.” But the epitome of civilization is restraint. To know we have blood lust in us. To know that the denizens of Paterson, many of them are doomed. As are we all, for none of us will attain immortality. “It is a social necessity,” is how the doctor justifies his incursion. These are warmongers’ validations as well. But some wars have to be fought. A pacific temperament can only serve a writer or a doctor or a civilization so well, can only take humans as a species so far. Margaret Glynne Lloyd writes in William Carlos Williams’s Paterson: A Critical Reappraisal that “The giant Paterson is the general myth translated in particular terms.” It is thus a reverse telegraphing effect, the opposite of the conclusion to a famous story by an earlier generation’s New Jersey writer of the people, Stephen Crane’s “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets.” “The Use of Force” concludes not with resignation and regret and a mother mourning a dead, disobedient child but with vengeance and immediacy, with the girl in abreaction and catharsis and inversion. It is she who is furious. Though she has been “saved” (with all its post-colonial and religious underpinnings, and with the recurrent use of the words “fury” and “furious” in the story pointing to the original Furies), and though through this entire story she was been guarding her mouth, trying to prevent access, she has been on the defensive, and a feminist critique would say women are always on the defensive, and always have been, and always have to be, but the girl, the Olson child, in the end she is very much alive, and “now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”
The best we can do is rebel. Like fallen angels. Like revolutionaries and minutemen. Like the poetics of Dickinson and Whitman revolting against traditional form or Milton’s Satan seething at God. Williams himself spearheaded another influential literary uprising, a new and still operative avant-garde. As Celia Carlson writes in the William Carlos Williams Review:
William Carlos Williams’s canonical status represents a convergence of the rise to dominance of “theory” in literary criticism and Williams’s own deep desire for cultural authority through his writing. Though many have viewed Williams as an energetic (proto-) postmodern rebel against traditional poetic values, much of Williams’s energy in his lyric poetry comes from his attempts to harness what he viewed in rather traditional terms as the feminine power of the body. Noteworthy in Williams’s oeuvre are the many objects—material and human—that hold an almost iconic status. As he said, famously: “No ideas but in things.” But Williams’s objects are internal as well. Because form is the generative shaping activity between self and other, involving the abstract creation of simulacra of experience, form is intimately connected to the emotional power of objects.
What poetic writing provides us in its lyricism, according to Carlson, is “sensuous knowledge.” It is through art and literature that we feel, that we empathize, that we solidify as a civilization and soldier on. Amidst the circumstantial swirlings of the study of poetry and poetics, art and society, theory and intellectualization, beneath it all, in the dirt and the blood and the loam, rising up undefeated, uncowed, we persist, and though, as it says at the end of Paterson, “we know nothing and can know nothing,” we continue the dance, the resurgence and recrudescence, Williams’s works offering us a form of deep embedded wisdom and humanity – the stuff of life.